Encyclopedia Britannica – Barnabas


Barnabas, in the New Testament, the surname, according to Acts iv. 36, given by the apostles (possibly in contrast to Joseph Barsabbas, Acts i. 23) to Joseph, “a Levite, a man of Cyprus by birth,” who, though like Paul not of the Twelve, came like him to rank as an apostle (Acts xiv. 4, 14, 1 Cor. ix. 6; see Apostle). The Greek rendering of this Semitic name ???? pa?a???se??) may be translated “son of consolation” (as in the A.V.), or “son of exhortation” (as in the R.V.). But there is an initial difficulty about the Greek rendering itself, as no satisfactory etymology of Bar-nabas in this sense has as yet been suggested. The one at present in favour on the ground of philological analogy (see Z.N.T.W., 1906, p. 91 for a fresh instance), viz. Bar-Nebo, lacks intrinsic fitness for a Jew and a Levite, and of course does not accord with the statement in Acts itself. Hence it still seems best to assume some unknown Aramaic form equivalent to pa?????s??, and then to take the latter in the sense of comfort or encouragement. This rendering, rather than “exhortation” in the sense of eloquence, best suits the usage of Acts, which suggests such comfort as is given by encouraging rather than rousing words (ix. 31, xi. 23, xiii. 15, xv. 31 f.; cf. Luke ii. 25, vi. 24). All we hear of Barnabas points to goodness of heart (“a good man,” xi. 24) as his distinctive quality, giving fineness of perception (ix. 27, xi. 25 f.) and large insight into essentials (xi. 23 f.). It was probably the practically helpful and encouraging form that his gift as a “prophet” took (Acts xiii. i, with 1 Cor. xiv. 3). It is perhaps significant that his first appearance is of the generously helpful kind described in Acts iv. 36 f. Yet we must beware of regarding Barnabas as merely a fine character; he plays too prominent a part in the New Testament for any such limitation. Thus, he next appears as braving the suspicions which dogged the ex-persecutor Saul (Paul)—possibly an old acquaintance in Hellenist circles at Jerusalem (cf. vi. 9, ix. 29)—and introducing him to the older apostles (ix. 27). More suggestive still of high repute as a man of insight and authority is his mission from the Jerusalem Church to inspect and judge of the new departure in the Gospel at Antioch, in Acts xi. 22. This means very much, though his modesty led him to call in the aid of his friend Saul to cope with the new and expanding situation (25 f.). After their brief joint visit to Judaea and Jerusalem (xi. 30, xii. 25) we next get a glimpse of Barnabas as still chief among the spiritual leaders of the Antiochene Church, and as called by the Spirit, along with Saul, to initiate the wider mission of the Gospel, outside Syria even, in regions beyond (xiii. 2, 4). He led the way to his native Cyprus; but in the crucial struggle with the magician Bar-Jesus, in the presence of the governor of the island (xiii. 7 ff.), Saul seems to have come so decisively to the front, that henceforth, for the author of Acts he takes the lead, and Barnabas appears as his colleague (see xiii. 13, “Paul and his company,” and note the turning back of Mark, the kinsman of Barnabas). The fact that at Lystra the natives styled Barnabas, Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, while suggesting that Barnabas was the man of nobler mien, proves that Paul was the chief speaker (xiv. 12); and the notices in the Pauline epistles fully bear out the view that “the gospel of the Gentiles” which they preached was in conception Paul’s (Gal. ii. 1-9). Indeed, Barnabas’s vacillation at Antioch, as recorded in Gal. ii. 11 ff. (whether it preceded or followed their mission in Acts xiii.-xiv.), shows that, while gifted with true intuitions, he was not strong in thinking out his position to all its issues on principle, and that it was here that Paul was so immensely his superior. But what Barnabas did see with full reasoned conviction, he was staunch in upholding; thus he upheld the general cause of Gentile freedom from the obligation of circumcision (as distinct from perfect religious equality with Jewish believers) at the Jerusalem conference (Acts xv.). With this stand for principle, however, his main work, as a great link in the transition of the Gospel from its Jewish to its universal mission, reached its climax; and Acts transfers its attention wholly to Paul, after explaining how their roads parted under rather painful circumstances (xv. 37 ff.).

When Barnabas sails away with Mark to resume work in Cyprus, the mists of history hide him from our sight. Only now and again do we catch fugitive and increasingly doubtful glimpses of him and his work. We learn from 1 Cor. ix. 6 that he adhered to Paul’s principle of self-support in his mission work, and from Col. iv. 10 that his name was well known and respected at Colossae about A.D. 60. Tradition, which early regards him as one of the seventy (Clem. Alex.), carries him, plausibly enough, to Alexandria (Clem. Hom. i. 8, ii. 4; cf. the ascription to him of the Alexandrine Epistle of Barnabas). But the evidence for his having visited Rome (later tradition says also Milan) is stronger because more varied (Clem. Recog. i. 7, cf. Hom. i. 7; the early Actus Petri Vercellenses; and the late Cypriot Encomium), especially if we might trust the Western ascription to him of the epistle to the Hebrews, which begins with Tertullian (De Pud. 20). But this may itself be mere inference from its self-description (xiii. 22), as a “word of exhortation,” to the “son of exhortation” (Acts iv. 36) as its author. The legend of his missionary labours in Cyprus, including martyrdom at Salamis, is quite late and untrustworthy. The date of his death is uncertain, but he was probably no longer living when Acts was written (c. A.D. 75-80).

His was essentially a mediating role. He filled a position intermediate between Jewish and Pauline Christianity—one characteristic of Christian Hellenists generally. Hence he is spoken of with respect in the Clementines; while Paul, as a radical in relation to the Law, is discountenanced. If we could confidently credit him with the authorship of the epistle to the Hebrews, we could conceive his theological standpoint more exactly. But, in any case, the Barnabas of history was a greater man than the Barnabas of modern tradition.

See W. Cunningham, Epistle of Barnabas, pp. xlvii.-lxii.; O. Braunsberger, Der Apostel Barnabas, sein Leben … (Mainz, 1876); articles s.v. in Ency. Biblica and Hastings’s Dictionary of the Bible.

The Epistle of Barnabas is one of the apocryphal books of the New Testament. At the end of the Codex Sinaiticus of the 4th century, as a sort of appendix to the New Testament, there stands an “Epistle of Barnabas.” Here it is followed by the Shepherd of Hermas, while in an 11th-century MS., which contains also the Didache, it is followed by two writings which themselves form an appendix to the New Testament in the Codex Alexandrinus. This means that it once enjoyed quasi-canonical authority, a fact amply borne out by what Eusebius (H. E. iii. 25) says as to its standing in the ancient Church. It was at Alexandria that its authority was greatest. Clement comments on it, as on the canonical scriptures, in his Hypotyposes; Origen cites it in the same spirit as scripture (C. Celsum, i. 63, De Princ. iii. 2, 4, 7). Clement, too, ascribes it to “the apostle” or “the prophet” Barnabas (Strom. ii. 6, 31, cf. ii. 20, 116), with explicit reference to Paul’s fellow-apostle. Internal evidence makes this ascription impossible, nor does the epistle itself lay any claim to such authorship. Lightfoot, indeed, suggests that its author was “some unknown namesake” of the famous Barnabas: but it is simpler to suppose that it was fathered upon the latter by the Alexandrian Church, ready to believe that so favourite a writing was of apostolic origin.

“That Alexandria, the place of its earliest reception, was also the place of its birth, is borne out by the internal evidence of style and interpretation, which is Alexandrian throughout” (Lightfoot). The picture, too, which it gives of the danger lest the Christianity of its readers should be unduly Judaic in feeling and practice, suits well the experiences of a writer living in Alexandria, where Judaism was immensely strong. Further, he shows an “astonishing familiarity with the Jewish rites,” in the opinion of a modern Jew (Kohler in the Jewish Encycl.); so much so, that the latter agrees with another Jewish scholar in saying that “the writer seems to have been a converted Jew, whose fanatic zeal rendered him a bitter opponent of Judaism within the Christian Church.” These opinions must overrule the view of some Christian scholars that the writer often blunders in Jewish matters, the fact being that his knowledge is derived from the Judaism of Alexandria[1] rather than Palestine. But we need not therefore regard the author as of Jewish birth. It is enough, and more in keeping with the thought as a whole, to regard him as having been in close contact with Judaism, possibly as a proselyte. He now uses his knowledge to warn his readers, with intense passion, against all compromise between Judaism and the Gospel. In this he goes so far as to deny any historical connexion between the two, maintaining with all the devices of an extravagant allegorism, including the Rabbinic Gematria based on the numerical values of letters (ix. 7 f.), that the Law and Prophecy, as meant by God, had never been given to Israel as a people. The Divine oracles had ever pointed to the Christian Covenant, and had been so understood by the men of God in Israel, whereas the apostate people had turned aside to keep the ceremonial letter of the Law at the instigation of an evil angel (ix. 4). In this way he takes in succession the typical Jewish institutions—Circumcision, Foods, Ablutions, Covenant, Sabbath, Temple—showing their spiritual counterpart in the New People and its ordinances, and that the Cross was prefigured from the first. Such insight (gnosis) into the reality of the case he regards as the natural issue of Christian faith; and it is his main object to help his readers to attain such spirituality—the more so that, by similar insight applied to the signs of the times, he knows and can show that the end of the present age is imminent (i. 5, 7-iv.). The burden of his epistle, then, is, “Let us become spiritual, a perfect temple unto God” (iv. 11); and that not only by theoretic insight, but also by practical wisdom of life. In order to enforce this moral, he passes to “another sort of gnosis and instruction” (xviii. i), viz. the precepts of the “Two Ways,” cited in a slightly different form from that found in the first part of the Teaching of the Apostles. The modifications, however, are all in a more spiritual direction, in keeping with the genuinely evangelic spirit which underlies and pervades even the allegorical ingenuities of the epistle.

Its opening shows it to have been addressed to a Church, or rather a group of Churches, recently visited by the writer, who, while not wishing to write as an authoritative “teacher” so much as one who has come to love them as a friend (i. 8, cf. ix. 9), yet belongs to the class of “teachers” with a recognized spiritual gift (charisma), referred to e.g. in the Didache. He evidently feels in a position to give his gnosis with some claim to a deferential hearing. This being so, the epistle was probably written, not to Alexandria, but rather by a “teacher” of the Alexandrine Church to some body of Christians in Lower Egypt among whom he had recently been visiting. This would explain the absence of specific address, so that it appears as in form a “general epistle,” as Origen styles it. Its date has been much debated. But Lightfoot’s reading of the apocalyptic passage in ch. iv.—with a slight modification suggested by Sir W. M. Ramsay—is really conclusive for the reign of Vespasian (A.D. 70-79). The main counter-view, in favour of a date about A.D. 130, can give no natural account of this passage, while it misconstrues the reference in ch. xvi. to the building of the spiritual temple, the Christian Church. Thus this epistle is the earliest of the Apostolic Fathers, and as such of special interest. Its central problem, the relation of Judaism and Christianity—of the Old and the New forms of a Covenant which, as Divine, must in a sense abide the same—was one which gave the early Church much trouble; nor, in absence of a due theory of the education of the race by gradual development, was it able to solve it satisfactorily.

Literature. — Besides collected editions of the Apostolic Fathers, see O. Braunsberger, Der Apostel Barnabas, … u. der ihm beigelegte Brief (Mainz, 1876); W. Cunningham, Epistle of Barnabas (1877); sections in J. Donaldson, The Apostolic Fathers; E. Reuss, Théologie chrétienne, vol. ii., and in M. von Engelhardt, Das Christenthum Justins des Martyrers; and Lightfoot’s fragmentary essay in his Clement of Rome, ii. 503-512. See also Apocryphal Literature, section “New Testament.”

Gospel of Barnabas. — We read in antiquity, e.g. in the Decretum Gelasii, of an apocryphal Gospel of Barnabas (see Apocryphal Literature), but we have no knowledge of its contents. There exists, however, in a single MS. in Italian a longish gospel with this title, written from a Mahommedan standpoint, but probably embodying materials partly Gnostic in character and origin. The Italian MS. was found by the Deist, John Toland, in a private collection at Amsterdam (see his Nazarenus, 1718); subsequently it came into the possession of Prince Eugene of Savoy, and finally was obtained with Eugene’s library by the imperial library at Vienna. It has been edited, with an English translation (1907) by (Rev.) Lonsdale and Laura Ragg, who hold that it was the work of a Christian renegade to Mahommedanism about the 13th-16th century. See also preliminary notice in the Journal of Theol. Studies, vi. 424 ff. The old view held by Toland and others that the Italian was a translation from the Arabic is demonstrably wrong. The Arabic marginal notes are apparently partly pious ejaculations, partly notes for the aid of Arabic students. The work is highly imaginative and often grotesque, but it is pervaded by an unusually high ethical enthusiasm.

MLA Citation

  • “Barnabas”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911. CatholicSaints.Info. 22 May 2014. Web. 24 September 2018. <>